Covering events from January - December 2004

Human rights violations continued to be reported against a background of political instability. A weak and corrupt judicial system remained a serious obstacle to human rights protection. A prominent trade union leader and political activist was assassinated. Vietnamese (Montagnard) asylum-seekers continued to arrive from neighbouring Viet Nam; some were forcibly returned. The Cambodian legislature ratified a UN agreement for the establishment of a criminal tribunal to bring to justice Khmer Rouge leaders.


In July the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) formed a coalition government, ending almost a year of uncertainty following inconclusive national elections in July 2003. Allegations that the opposition Sam Rainsy Party were planning to overthrow the government were widely perceived as an attempt to discredit political opposition.

In October, 82-year-old King Sihanouk abdicated unexpectedly and was succeeded by his son Prince Sihamoni.

In July Cambodia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), amid concerns at the implications for the poorest sector of society. Cambodia remained one of the world's poorest countries, with 36 per cent of the population living in poverty and a high mortality rate among under-fives. Land disputes increased, with members of the wealthy elite and military involved in land grabbing and speculation. The number of reported injuries caused by landmines rose dramatically as poor people seeking land moved into affordable areas that had not yet been de-mined. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS continued to be a serious problem; Cambodia was reported to have the highest infection rate in Asia.

In September Cambodia acceded to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and international conventions on migrant workers and trafficking.


Concerns remained about the weak and corrupt judicial system. High-profile cases were marked by political interference and, more broadly, there was a failure to adhere to procedures laid down in national law and international standards.

  • Four Muslim men arrested in May and June 2003 remained in pre-trial detention at the end of 2004, well in excess of the period permitted under domestic law. They were accused of membership of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Islamist group reportedly linked to al-Qa'ida. The four were initially charged with the "commission of acts of international terrorism" under Article 2 of the vaguely worded Anti-Terrorism Law. Although these charges were dropped in February, the judge ordered that the men remain in detention while prosecutors brought new charges under the same law for attempted murder. The conduct of the case was marked by political interference with the judiciary and lack of evidence.

Many politically motivated killings from previous years remained unresolved and there was an alarming increase in mob killings of suspected thieves for which no one was brought to justice. Several people were the victims of what were believed to be politically motivated killings.

  • Chea Vichea, an internationally renowned trade union leader and Sam Rainsy Party activist, was shot and killed in January. He had received numerous death threats. The investigation into his murder was marked by judicial irregularities. Two men arrested five days after the killing initially confessed, but later claimed on national television that they had been tortured during interrogation. The case generated widespread domestic and international criticism. By the end of the year no one had been brought to justice for the killing.


Torture of prisoners in police custody was reported to be widespread. In June, the Deputy Director-General of the National Police, Sau Phan, asserted publicly that torture during interrogation was sometimes necessary to force suspected criminals to provide information. He was reported to have retracted his comments following extensive media coverage and criticism, including an intervention by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights in Cambodia. Local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also reported the continuing use of torture in prisons as a punishment. According to reports, no one accused of torture was successfully prosecuted in 2004.


There was an increase in new asylum-seekers from Viet Nam after demonstrations in the Vietnamese Central Highlands were violently suppressed in April (see Viet Nam entry). Cambodian and Vietnamese police increased border cooperation which led to many newly arrived asylum-seekers being forcibly returned to Viet Nam.

Following mounting international concern and pressure, the authorities allowed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) limited access to border areas from July onwards and several hundred asylum-seekers were taken to Phnom Penh where their requests for refugee status could be processed. Those recognized as refugees by UNHCR were permitted to leave Cambodia under UN auspices for safe third countries.

Khmer Rouge tribunal

The new government passed legislation allowing for the establishment of a criminal tribunal to bring to justice suspected perpetrators of gross human rights violations during the period of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-1979). Serious flaws remained which threatened the integrity of the legal process and set a dangerous precedent for other future international or "mixed" tribunals. Concerns included the feasibility and inherent weakness of the proposed "mixed" tribunal consisting of Cambodian and international judicial officials, and inadequate provision for victim and witness protection. By the end of the year only a fraction of the necessary funding for the establishment of the tribunal had been forthcoming from the international community.

Freedom of assembly

Severe restrictions on public demonstrations, imposed following violent anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh in January 2003, remained in force. Protests that did proceed without official sanction were often met with excessive use of force by the police.

Human rights defenders

Local human rights organizations played an increasingly crucial role in providing protection to asylum-seekers from Viet Nam. Several staff members of one organization based in Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provinces faced harassment, threats and arrest by the authorities. Villagers in these provinces, some of them belonging to the same ethnic minority groups as the asylum-seekers, also took considerable risks in providing shelter and food to new arrivals from Viet Nam and assisting their passage to Phnom Penh. Many faced arrest, harassment and restrictions on movement as a result. Intimidating language used by senior politicians fostered an atmosphere of fear for local NGO staff and Cambodian staff of UN agencies working in the human rights field.

Violence against women and children

No progress was made on the draft law against domestic violence. NGOs reported that rape and violence against women and children were growing to "epidemic" proportions, and that the number of reported rape cases was increasing, with inadequate legal redress for victims in the courts. Trafficking of women remained of concern although several high-profile prosecutions of paedophiles involved in sex tourism marked a greater determination by the authorities and NGOs to address this issue.

AI country visits

An AI delegation visited Cambodia in February.

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